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Maplewood pilot lifts his wings with a prayer
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Maplewood pilot lifts his wings with a prayer

Sharing his passion, Howard Cooper leads ‘Jews in Aviation’

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Ready for takeoff — Howard Cooper, Jewish educator and private pilot, cofounded Jews in Aviation in 2009. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg
Ready for takeoff — Howard Cooper, Jewish educator and private pilot, cofounded Jews in Aviation in 2009. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg

Howard Cooper has an extra bounce in his step and a grin on his face. It’s obvious he can’t wait to get in the air.

“It’s a gorgeous day,” he says. The air is crisp and the leaves are at the height of their color. It’s a good one for flying.

Inside the two-seater Diamond Aircraft DA20, Cooper runs through his safety checklists, looks at the instrument panel, turns on the GPS, puts on the headsets, lowers the airplane hood, and finally checks in with the tower. He fires up the propeller, and pretty soon heads down the runway.

The last page of the checklist is one you don’t often find in cockpits: a prayer for pilots that Cooper wrote himself and had translated into Hebrew.

Cooper, a Jewish educator who lives in Maplewood and leads plenty of adult classes, is also a private pilot who cofounded Jews in Aviation, a mostly on-line forum for Jews who are pilots, work in related industries, or just have an interest in flying.

“I don’t want to say God called me to do this; it’s not a spiritual calling,” he says. “It’s more of a passion, an intellectual calling.”

Watching him at the airport, though, it seems more than a mere intellectual endeavor. One plan to take a visitor flying had already been scuttled by clouds and fog, yielding a very disappointed Cooper. On this day, in early November, however, he bounds outside to the aircraft, eager to show a visitor around and get inside. He relishes sharing his excitement about flying —– it’s one of the reasons he founded Jews in Aviation in 2009, together with Matthew Ritter of Toronto, a pilot for Air Canada.

“That’s what Jews do,” he said. “There are organizations for Jewish hikers, bowlers, lawyers, doctors, police officers, and motorcycle riders.”

Ritter’s interest in the organization is professional — he wanted to give his co-religionists a way to find mentors in the field. Although there are plenty of Jews with a pilot’s license, he said in a prepared statement, “Jews in the Diaspora are not well represented in commercial aviation.”

Jews in Aviation is already having an unintended impact: sensitizing the industry about the needs of observant Jews.

When Jews in Aviation was contacted by an observant Jew who trained and passed his certification to work as an air traffic controller, but could not get a job because of his inability to work on Shabbat, Cooper wrote a letter to Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and spoke to his staff.

“Where this will go I have no idea, but we raised an issue,” said Cooper. “My take on it is the NYPD has figured it out; they have shomer Shabbat policemen. How is it they were able to figure it out, but the [Federation Aviation Administration] cannot?”

Cooper acknowledges a lifelong fascination with flying. As a teenager in the early 1970s, when other, “normal” boys turned their interests elsewhere, he quipped, he signed up for a five-day course at a glider school in northern Michigan, not far from his hometown of Oak Park, a Detroit suburb. He got a student certificate and eventually convinced his parents to allow him to purchase a kit to build a gyrocopter, which he describes as a “flying lawn chair.” He later found someone who wanted to trade it for a small airplane. After he made the trade, the trailer broke and the airplane tumbled onto the highway and was wrecked — grounding his ambitions for good long while.

Cooper went on to college, career, marriage, and family. And finally, 30 years later, living in Louisville, Ky., he came back to his first love and started taking lessons again.

‘Personal passion’

In 2007, he decided he would join an organization of Jewish pilots, and was shocked to find no such organization. He decided to change that.

His flight instructor in Louisville happened to be Jewish, and he put Cooper in touch with Ritter. They’ve attracted about 150 members, mostly from the United States, Canada, and Israel. Members don’t have to be pilots — they come from a variety of areas in aviation, or are just interested in the field. Joining the pair in running the organization is Israeli webmaster Yigal Merav.

In addition to Cooper, other local members of Jews in Aviation include those who work in the Jewish community, including some clergy, like Rabbi Donald Weber of the Reform Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro, and Cantor Matthew Axelrod, from the Conservative Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains. Axelrod is not only a pilot, but a certified flight instructor. Both told NJJN they were thrilled to join JIA, though neither had thought about such an organization previously.

“I always treated flying as my personal hobby and passion — something separate from the work that I do at shul,” said Axelrod. “Now I see that it’s really a fine complement to my kavana (personal motivation and intention) while leading prayers.”

“I think the group’s greatest accomplishment would be to make other ‘flying Jews’ aware of the same thing, that we don’t need to restrict our Judaism to the synagogue, but rather make it a part of everything we do,” said Axelrod.

“Much of our liturgy focuses on praising God for the gift of creation — and what better way to appreciate this gift than by viewing it in such an all-encompassing way. It lets us really see things in a new way.”

Cooper, a member of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, knows how to share the things he is passionate about. He has written a book on Jewish life with noted author Anita Diamant entitled Living a Jewish Life: Jewish Traditions, Customs and Values for Today’s Families. He regularly leads adult education classes, as well as Shabbat study. Most recently he served as interim director of education at Congregation B’nai Israel in Basking Ridge.

He has a grown daughter and two step-children, and is currently a stay-at-home dad.

Cooper earned his private pilot’s license, or general aviation certificate, in 2009. Now he tries to fly every week, and is working on getting his instrument rating, something that will qualify him to participate in a variety of pilot service projects, from flying Special Olympics participants to annual venues, to helping gravely ill people get safely to hospitals without having to use commercial airlines.

Meanwhile, Jews in Aviation is developing “organically,” according to Cooper.

Over Memorial Day Weekend, the group will have its first “fly-in,” or gathering at a small airport in Monticello, NY.

On that flight in early November, when the skies were perfect for flying, we buckled in, and put on our headsets. Cooper radioed the tower, and we were cleared for takeoff. After a brief taxi down the runway, we were suddenly airborne. The scenery was dazzling, dizzying, even inspiring as we headed over lakes and trees for a full foliage tour over northwest New Jersey.

And while Cooper hasn’t quite converted another Jew to his calling, he did afford his passenger some vivid insight into the awe of flying.

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